By Bill Kearney | May 1, 2015 | People
As Miami-Dade County’s state attorney, Katherine Fernandez Rundle charts the legal courses of Miami.
Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, here at Perricone’s in Brickell, oversees the fourth-largest state attorney’s office in the nation.
Imagine growing up in Miami but being shipped off to a convent-like high school in Spain where you live among nuns, work with them in the kitchen, and study diligently under their watchful eye, lest they crack your knuckles with a ruler. This might seem like an old-world tableau from a forgotten time, but it was how Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami-Dade County’s state attorney, spent a chunk of her high school years.
These days, in the very new-world environs of Miami, she’s leading the county’s top law enforcement office, including navigating how the state’s laws need to evolve for the 21st century, from high tech identity theft to human trafficking. It’s a long way from Barcelona. “I didn’t like it—I was angry and sad, but I grew a lot,” she says of her schooling in Spain.
That adversity, as well as good bloodlines (her father was the first Hispanic judge in Miami), would prepare Fernandez Rundle for the challenges of one of the most outstanding legal careers in Florida. After Spain, she went on to graduate from the University of Miami, then pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Cambridge, in England, where she earned a graduate degree in criminology, and a law degree. From there, she returned to South Florida to work for then-Miami-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno. When Reno moved on to become attorney general for President Bill Clinton in 1993, Fernandez Rundle was appointed to the office and became the first Hispanic female state attorney in Florida.
Since then, Fernandez Rundle’s been on a 22-year run as state attorney, overseeing the largest state attorney’s office in the state (the fourth-largest in the nation) with 330 lawyers, and 1,300 employees total. Like most people who have been in a position of power for a long time—and anyone who has to battle through elections—she’s been the target of criticism. There are folks who don’t like her decisions on whom to prosecute and whom not to, and the Police Benevolent Association has made efforts to elect her rivals, yet voters have given her the nod in six elections.
Part of Fernandez Rundle’s mission is to adjust South Florida law as society changes. In the ’90s, when “every consulate was telling its citizens not to travel here” due to tourist muggings, her office responded by rewriting the state’s sentencing structure. Her office was the first in Florida to establish a drug court and a domestic violence unit, and the majority of law on domestic violence was either authored or advocated by her office.
This year, she’s focused on a range of issues, including human trafficking, particularly of young runaways lured into forced prostitution. As a result, her office has developed a special human trafficking unit, a media campaign for awareness, and a hotline, and is honing in on hotels where abductions typically occur. “The inhumanity to humanity can be very evil,” she says. “But what motivates all of us is the victims. If you spend a day with us and see these victims—they have so much strength. They empower you, and you want to fight for them.”
Technology, too, has changed the nature of crime in Miami. “What used to be street gangs have started stealing IDs, stealing tax returns,” she says, and Miami is ground zero for Medicare fraud. As a result, she’s started a cyber crimes unit.
Fernandez Rundle’s legal journey had its roots with her father, Cuban immigrant Carlos Benito Fernandez. “My father would take me to his law office, and I would go to court with him, meet governors, and he exposed me to the world of problem solving,” says Fernandez Rundle, who has also raised twin boys—one now a lawyer and the other a singer/songwriter. “There’s always room for improvements; my sons would tell you I made mistakes,” she says. “The only answer is to not beat yourself up and do the best you can, and then have everyone around you be a support system. When my mother found out I was having twins, she said, ‘That’s it, I’ll take care of them.’ I moved two blocks from where my mother and father lived. Not everybody’s that lucky, and I know that.”
After her 22-year stretch, will she ever run for a different public office? “I’ve been approached, and I would never say never,” says Fernandez Rundle, “but over the years, I have come to appreciate that I have one of the best jobs in America, and I work with the best team in America. When you’re doing work that’s good for the community, when you can right wrongs, and have mercy when you should, what a great labor of love I have here.”
Photography by Vanessa Rogers